My Open University course on children’s literature started yesterday so I’ve been immersed in the pages of Northern Lights, Little Women and Harry Potter for the past week.
The first part of the course is about defining the term ‘children’s literature’. Do we mean literature specifically about children or written specifically for them or even written by children? With the increasing popularity of cross-over fiction like Hunger Games, the boundaries – if they ever really existed – have become ever more blurred.
Reading the course material has also got me thinking whether children and adults read differently. I don’t mean just in terms of the complexity of vocabulary or sentence structure but in terms of what we look for in the act of reading itself.
According to David Beagley who lectures on children’s lit at Trope University in Australia, children tend to read externally by which he means that they use novels to explore and discover experiences that they have not yet had themselves. Experiences such sleeping out of doors (Swallows and Amazons), coping with the first days in a new school when you don’t know anyone (Harry Potter or Blyton’s Malory Towers for example), being falsely accused of being a liar (Jane Eyre) etc etc. Read many books aimed at younger readers and you’ll find a large “education” element mixed in with the pure entertainment element – showing and guiding the reader on appropriate ways to behave and that some reactions are natural aspects of growing up.
I’d never read any of the Harry Potter series until recently but what struck me was how well J..K Rowling balances the ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’ elements. Strip away the fantasy and the magic elements and you’ll find there are plenty of messages about appropriate ways to behave whether that’s about being loyal to friends or sticking up for what you believe in. There are also multiple examples of situations which a child reader could encounter themselves – so we see how Harry deals with bullies like Malfoy and how he decides who will be the friends that are really worth having.
Little Women stands in complete contrast to this. It’s so heavily didactic that I became frustrated with it – far too many episodes ended in a moral lesson from Marmee or a little homily from one of the sisters. But of course, this is my view as an adult reader. Was my experience different when I read it as a young girl? Undoubtedly it was. Reading it as a 10 year old, I never noticed how much sugary ‘lessons in life’ it contained. Instead, I was entranced by the character of Jo Marsh. I wanted to be a tomboy like her and not have to worry about whether my socks were falling down or my dress was stained. So in a sense I was reading as Beagley indicates – I was reading to discover an experience of what it would be like to climb trees. And then I put that knowledge to use by taking my bunch of friends and cousins on our own adventures in the hills near my grand-parents’ home. But now of course, I’ve had those tomboy outdoor experiences so I am less entranced by what Little Women can tell me, which means other aspects of the book (the role of mothers versus fathers in society for example,) come more to the forefront. And they are not substantial enough to keep me as an adult reader engaged.